John Colson: Are Earth’s insects bugging out?
Hit & Run
Let’s talk about bugs.
I’ve had the feeling for some time now that our local contingent of insect life here in the Central Rocky Mountains has been, shall we say, fading and diminishing.
One harbinger of that phenomenon, strictly from personal observation, is the drastic drop-off in bats that circle through town every evening.
At our house (we’ve lived on the south side of Carbondale for nearly 17 years), bats used to be so numerous and so aggressive in their search for buggy repast that we would need to duck occasionally out of fear that some hungry bat might actually swipe the sides of our heads as it blew past us gulping insects.
Nowadays, we celebrate if we spot even a single bat over the course of several days or a week.
A diminution of butterflies has been another warning sign that has seemed to indicate not just a waning of the numbers of a particular species, but overall decline of butterflies of all sorts.
I should note that our backyard over the past several years has unexpectedly become host to what sounds like a couple of crickets, though I’ve only heard them at night and have not located them. All I know is that prior to very recently, I had noticed crickets only in their absence ever since moving to the Rockies more than 40 years ago. I do not know what it means from a scientific point of view, but it is troubling for some reason.
Still, as a non-scientist and a town-dwelling human for most of my life, I never felt that the decline in bugs and insects was something I needed to worry about, at least not until beekeepers began sending out alarms about a massive die-off in bee populations around the globe.
When those alarms were first sounded in the late 1990s, I remained hopeful that science would come up with a solution that would keep the bees at work and save humanity from starving to death. Bees, as you probably know, have long been the main recognized agent of pollination of the many plants we humans depend on, and the prospect of a bee-less world was not one we cared to contemplate too closely.
Bees, along with other insects and even birds, have provided this service to the world for millennia.
But according to the website sos-bees.org, maintained by the Greenpeace organization, the bee population has been declining for several decades, most notably in the northern hemisphere, and particularly in North America and Europe.
The focus on those regions may simply be due to the fact that most of the scientists studying these things are either European or North American, and populations of bees and other critical insect species may be declining worldwide, but that’s another issue for another day.
Back to the topic at hand.
What is it about bees that has caused this column to be written? Glad you asked, because it’s not all that complicated.
I recently read a lengthy article in The New Yorker magazine by Bill McKibben about the current state of the global warming data, which begins with his noting that some three decades ago he first sounded the alarm about rising global temperatures due to human activities, starting with CO2 emissions but quickly spreading to include a growing number of gaseous compounds that we annually pump into the atmosphere and that act to trap heat that would otherwise radiate into space.
He reported that there have been “at least four other episodes” in the history of our planet where CO2 levels have spiked in the atmosphere, including the famous “Great Dying” at the end of the Permian Age, caused largely by volcanoes burning through subterranean coal deposits.
But none of those happened as fast as the current rise in atmospheric CO2 and other compounds. According to McKibben, the Great Dying (which killed off most life on Earth about 250 million years ago) was brought on by a rise in atmospheric CO2 at only about one-tenth the pace of the current situation.
McKibben, who has been studying this issue for some 30 years, noted that with CO2 topping 400 parts per million and rising, “the extra heat that we trap near the planet every day is equivalent to the heat from 400,000 bombs the size of the one that was dropped in Hiroshima.”
One inescapable result of this pollution, obvious to anyone looking at our planet critically and honestly, has been a rapid worsening of planetary warming, a rise in the numbers and severity of hyper-destructive storms, and hastened declines in wildlife around the globe that already were threatened by the expansion of human activities and the loss of natural habitat.
Check out McKibben’s article, “How Extreme Weather Is Shrinking The Planet,” in the Nov. 26 edition of the magazine.
But, you might be thinking, what’s this got to do with bees and bugs?
Again, glad you asked.
An article in the Dec. 2 New York Times magazine by Brooke Jarvis, “The Insect Apocalypse Is Here,” outlines the increasing realization that the world’s insect life is under attack and dying off at a rapid clip.
Jarvis talked with scientists mostly in Europe, where the issue has been under the most scrutiny, who have established that the insect populations in northern European nations have been disappearing at a monstrous rate.
The article starts with a bicycle trip by a Danish high-school science teacher at a park near Copenhagen, who noticed that he was not having to keep his mouth closed to avoid swallowing bugs, as he had done when he cycled through the same parkland area as a young boy.
Startled, he began looking into the matter, and learned that several scientific studies in recent years had catalogued an overall decline of insect species of all sorts, to the tune of a die-off as high as 75 percent (in Germany, at least) in under three decades.
Citing everything from “windshield surveys” (a lack of bugs squashing themselves on car windshields) to amateur cataloging of insect numbers, to scientific studies, Jarvis reported that bugs and insects seem to be disappearing from landscapes at a very alarming rate.
She acknowledged, however, that there is relatively scant data from past decades and even centuries on which to build conclusions, but what there is appears to confirm the worrisome supposition that the world’s bugs are dying off, probably from a combination of habitat loss due to pollution or the expansion of human habitation, and the effects of global climate change.
All of this remains inconclusive and in dire need of serious, perhaps emergency study.
Because if the bugs go, guess which species is likely to be not far behind them, thanks to its own stupidity and greed?
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